Physics Lesson

Think budgeting in this city has evolved under John Tory, out and up from the morass of political sloganeering and accounting sorcery of the Ford administration? clownsinavolkswagenThink again, mes amis. Here’s a pre-masticated chunk for you to chew on.

In the rate supported solid waste budget already approved in December by city council, there was a savings of a little over $2 million with the elimination of the city rebate for those XL garbage bins some households have. You know, the ones the size of a fucking Volkswagen. A family of 7 clowns could comfortably live inside one. City staff thought maybe we shouldn’t be subsidizing people to throw away a lot of garbage that costs all of us to haul away and store in landfills especially since it seems that those with XL garbage cans recycle and green bin their organics less than others.

Council agreed. But now, with a submission to committee yesterday, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford (presumably with Mayor Tory’s blessing) headscratcherwants that $2.23 million XL garbage bin rebate “reinstated”. This, while they’re raiding reserve funds, demanding $5 million more from the TTC and not funding about 60% of the promises and pledges council and the mayor have made. The budget chair wants to remove $2.23 million from the proposed operating budget back to rebate XL garbage bin users. (h/t to Matt Elliott for explaining the nuanced dance of rate and tax supported budgets.)

Maybe it’s simply being used as a bargaining chip, to be given up during the horse-trading that’s going to only intensify between now and mid-February when city council finalizes this budget. Still. It seems impossibly, I don’t know, short-sighted and… dumb. There’s not a word in my arsenal I can summon to describe it.

I get that XL garbage bins are used in multiunit residences, like rooming houses for example. Surely though, we have the technology to determine between those and single family homes using this type of receptacle, and can adjust the rebates accordingly. Because, right now, in 2016, there’s no way single families shouldn’t be paying full cost for the use of XL garbage bins. None. Zip. aimlesslyForget about it.

It’s a tiny, tiny matter in the bigger $11 billion picture of the 2016 budget for sure but it just epitomizes for me the amorphous direction of this administration, two budgets into its term now. Keeping taxes low is the only touchstone, exactly like the Ford years, with big promises of improvements to our quality of life but woefully short on the follow through. Outside of that (and keeping talk of new sources of revenue at bay), anything goes. Just meet that property tax rate increase cap, and it’s all good.

Actually, what it feels like, and forgive me the sports analogy here, is a baseball manager’s long, deliberate walk from the dugout toward the mound, taking his time to make sure the bullpen arms are good and ready to jump in and offer immediate relief. Mayor Tory’s stalling, waiting, hoping for money to start flowing in to the city’s coffers from senior levels of government, fullclosetespecially the feds who seem itching to start spreading infrastructure money around in order to help out the teetering economy. If he can just string things out a little bit longer, keep things duct taped together for one more budget cycle, until the cavalry arrives…

That would be welcome, of course, and long overdue. But it isn’t realistic to think either Queen’s Park or Ottawa is going to fill our every need, is it? Should they? Yes, they should be redirecting money back to cities on things municipalities should never have been paying for off of the property tax base in the first place including affordable housing and a transit system that provides a regional service. Arguably though, we aren’t even properly funding the things we should be paying for, like parks, planning and libraries, off the top of my head, forcing ourselves to make hard choices about need-to-have versus nice-to-haves through our collective refusal to reach a little deeper into our own pockets.

John Tory promised to bring a more clear-headed, rational, reasonable way of doing things to City Hall. We gave him a mulligan on his first budget, as we tend to do to most new mayors, as they are inheriting somebody else’s work in progress, let’s call it.bulldurham Second time around, however, we’re expecting a little more ownership, a sense of purpose, a manifestation of a mandate.

What’s on offer right now from Team Tory is a black hole, sucking the operation of this city into it. A patchwork of cuts here, additions there, amounting to little more than numbers summing up to zero for no other seeming purpose than because they have to. Governance entropy, waiting, fingers crossed, for an injection of life and energy from somewhere out there in the cosmos.

nonevently submitted by Cityslikr

Half Measures

Earlier this week, I wrote a little something something about the “incrementalism” of Mayor Tory, as mostly supporters of his might call it. babysteps“Small, tangible actions that add up over time to real progress,” according to Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives in the mayor’s office.

Yesterday, in his State of the City speech at the Economic Club of Canada, Mayor Tory unleashed some of that incrementalling with a surprise announcement of a .5% Capital Building Fund levy to be added to our municipal tax bills beginning in 2017. Additional money that will be dedicated to alleviating some of our much needed capital infrastructure in transit and housing. Capital investment, currently unfunded to the tune of $20 billion or so, portrayed as a menacing iceberg in City Manager Peter Wallace’s powerful presentation to the Executive Committee on Tuesday.

Woah!

Could it be, might it be this mayor finally gets it? The news from the new city manager that the city is, in fact, revenue starved got through his low-tax mantra haze? capitalicebergFrequent critics of the mayor, Metro’s Matt Elliott and the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan, folks I rarely have policy issue beefs with, were more than cautiously optimistic about Mayor Tory’s seeming about-face. A new era of forward-thinking might just have been ushered in at City Hall.

I don’t know, though. Call me skeptical.

Incrementalism or a half measure?

In presenting staff’s 2016 budget, the city manager forcefully opened the door to a much needed, larger discussion about how Toronto funds the kind of city it wants. Let’s talk first about the things we want to do, want to build and then proceed to the way we plan on paying for it. For too long, it’s been done the other way around. Here’s what we’re going to spend and here’s what we’re going to spend it on. (Steve Munro does a much more thorough job explaining the process than I could.) emptypocketsMoney for our civic aspirations has remained in short supply.

To my mind, rather than seizing the opportunity presented to him to lead that vital conversation, Mayor Tory’s sudden jerk in the right direction, nipped it in the bud. See? I listen. I respond. I am doing something.

But just how much exactly is he doing by floating this .5% capital building fund levy? Concluding a lengthy Twitter essay (yes, such a thing does exist), Councillor Gord Perks suggested that at its height in 2022, after a 5 year roll out, the levy will bring in about $65 million a year. “The $65 miillion tax increase proposed by @JohnTory will only cover 1/20th or 5% of our unfunded capital.”

Is that somehow supposed to show the other levels of government that the city has finally put on its adult breeches and is prepared to pony up and pay its way? Here’s a nickel on the dollar. We’re good?

Underwhelming, I’d call it. Mostly for show. It’s hard to imagine it really addressing the city manager’s call for a serious discussion.

While applauding the mayor for proposing the levy, Sheila Bock of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urged council to think bigger, revisit the revenue toolbox it has at its disposal. comingupshort“These untapped powers provide the city with a menu of options that could raise more than $400 million annually,” she wrote. Remember that Vehicle Registration Tax that got repealed a few years back? Generated about roughly the same annual amount as the mayor’s levy will in 2022.

Too rich for Mayor Tory’s taste, it seems. Little steps instead. Walk before running. “Small, tangible actions,” like his director of strategic initiatives might call them.

Or, as some of us less persuaded might see it, blunting any chance at forward progress or real change. The fact that the mayor vigorously denied the levy was actually a property tax increase in order to keep his campaign pledge of maintaining property taxes at or below the rate of inflation suggests that he’s not really prepared to take on the hobgoblin of misguided, small-minded Fordian penny-pinching ways at city council. babyfalldownHis initial attempt at implying his levy was simply replacing the Scarborough subway tax that was set to end in 2017 (spoiler alert: It isn’t) also doesn’t augur well for the strength of his convictions on revenue generation.

So yeah, I continue to see the glass half empty in terms of Mayor Tory’s motives with this move, half empty like the gesture it is, a mere token. Should he be applauded for giving the impression of being almost, kinda decisive? I don’t know. It’s been pretty much his approach to governance since day 1. Nothing about this strikes me as new or encouraging. A small step when what’s required is a big, bold leap.

unconvincedly submitted by Cityslikr

Benign Neglect Is Still Neglect

At a press conference yesterday (a ‘press avail’ in journalese), Mayor Tory announced that progress had been made in reducing the 2016 police budget. mayorjohntoryOf course, when it comes to the police budget, reduced actually means less of an increase. So, an original ask of 5.8% knocked down to 2.76% works out to be a decrease in the police budget. It’s what we call ‘progress’!

The day before, on Monday, the TTC budget committee met, and in discussions about proposed waterfront transit projects, seemed ‘resigned’, in the words of the Globe and Mail’s Transportation writer, Oliver Moore, to some sort of people moving walkway linking Union Station to Queen’s Quay. Yeah, an escalator rather an actual vehicular link like the one that was favoured here, way back in 2013 (h/t Matt Elliot). Why? A serious lack of capital funds. No money.

This is Mayor John Tory’s Toronto, folks. Where police budgets continue to rise despite evidence showing crime statistics declining. nomoneyPublic transit budgets keep growing too but not enough to accommodate the increasing ridership numbers that continue to go up despite a less than optimal service, let’s call it.

Mayor Tory’s Toronto.

To be sure, this isn’t all on him. He’s only officially held the office for some 11 months. Bloated police and insufficient public transit budgets most definitely preceded him.

But the mayor wears this current Police Services Board. The former chair, Alok Mukherjee, left the position before his term was up, and replaced by the mayor’s buddy and former chief of staff, Andy Pringle. Upon assuming office, Mayor Tory dumped the only black member on the TPSB, Councillor Michael Thompson, and took his spot on the board. The new police chief, Mark Saunders, is his choice.

So, yeah. The 2016 police budget belongs to Mayor Tory.

And as the TTC struggles to maintain proper levels of service and plan future transit projects, Mayor Tory has dropped a huge turd into the proceedings, his election campaign ready SmartTrack. whitewashingDraining money and time resources from city and TTC staff, the plan is no less fuzzy and ill-formed than it was when it was pitched for votes some 18 months ago. Reports on it have been delayed. Ridership models adapted to work it. There’s no lid tight enough to contain the stink coming from the project.

None of his gestures toward the TTC, bus service bumped back up to 2011 levels, free transit for the kids, are making any dent in the pressures weighing down on the system. So the ongoing problems facing public transit in this city are now Mayor Tory’s problems.

Is there any reason to believe that he’s up to the task of dealing with them?

His full on commitment to seeing SmartTrack through, regardless, seems nothing but self-serving, an eye solely on re-election in 2018 rather than improving transit for the city. He’s spent much more of his political capital (not to say a lot of the city’s actual capital) catering to the perceived needs of drivers, speeding up repairs on expressways, keeping others elevated for absolutely no reason aside from optics. Being modestly more transit-friendly than the previous administration in no way should be perceived as being any less car-friendly.

On the policing front, Mayor Tory’s wading in to the carding issue was a complete and utter fiasco. He got bailed out temporarily by the province who redirected the focus onto themselves as they figure out how to try and reconfigure regulations. sweepundertherugHis TPSB chair dropped the ball on a KPMG report on police budgeting that’s been on or near the table (depending on who you believe) for nearly a year now. Chair Pringle, in responding to questions about why the report hadn’t been made public yet, referred to it as an ‘internal think document’. “Random suggestions aren’t necessarily something that we report back on,” the chair said.

Mayor Tory has subsequently suggested the KPMG report be made public but not in time to have any impact on this year’s police budget. A budget that will be increasing again despite how the mayor’s office tries to spin it. An increase is an increase no matter how small an increase it is.

Given the current crisis level climate in the city toward its police services, with the laughably light penalty given to the only office convicted of a G20-related crime and the ongoing trial of Constable James Forcillo in the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, Mayor Tory’s not rock the boat approach seems wholly inadequate. The additional strain of his SmartTrack plan on an already over-stressed transit system is the exact opposite. Unnecessarily burdensome in a white elephant kind of way.

This is a mayor completely tone deaf to the reality of the city he was elected to lead. He preaches steady stewardship but practices little of it. whatsthatTimid when he needs to be bold. Heavy-handed when required to be conciliatory. Wanting to be everything to everybody, Mayor Tory is proving to be nothing to anyone.

If the Ford Administration was a reaction to the instability Toronto now faces, brought about by unequal access to income, mobility, opportunity, Mayor Tory’s soothing can-do cheerleading in no way addresses that instability. It doesn’t even provide a band aid. It’s the blank, toothless smile of a nothing to see here sensibility that focuses all its energy looking back over its shoulder instead of at the rocky road ahead.

impatiently submitted by Cityslikr